Saturday, August 28, 2021

Catherine Cookson - The Cinder Path

'You're a loser; you were born a loser.'
Was that the whole truth about Charlie MacFell? Was he just the kind of nice chap who always takes the dirty end of the stick, lacking the inner strength to take a firm stand in life or love alike? In one of the most powerful and distinctive novels that this author has written, Catherine Cookson brilliantly portrays a man in search of himself and tells a story of exceptional dramatic force which carries the reader from the rural Northumberland of Edwardian times into the holocaust of the Western Front in the First World War. And at the root of the matter is the cinder path of Charlie's boyhood home; a place of harsh associations that would come to symbolize the struggle with destiny itself.

Comment: I was given this book years ago, while I was still in high school, because I sometimes talked books with one of my teachers and at the end of that school year, that teacher would be gone for she was still in training. But she agreed to exchange letters with me during the summer and she gave me this book for my birthday. It's shameful, yes, but only now, almost twenty years later, I finally got to it. My only excuse is I was saving it for those days when I " would have nothing else to read".

This book was written in the 70s and it's the story of Charlie MacFell, a young man whose family is quite dysfunctional, with an arrogant and authoritative father, a quieter but annoying mother and a demanding, envious sister. They live in a farm but Charlie is more of a poet than a potential farmer although his father is blind to it and tries to shape him to his own image, something Charlie - and everyone else - is more than aware will never happen. Things change one day, when his father dies and the farm is, as expected, inherited by Charlie, to the chagrin of his mother and sister and even of the neighbor, who will push Charlie to marry his daughter Victoria. The problem is Charlie isn't certain of anything, he doesn't care for Victoria and war is looming ahead... what will happen to Charlie...?

I had never read anything by this author and my expectations came only from the fact this was written when it was and I imagined a certain type of story. I wasn't too wrong in those expectations for the story was filled with drama and an older style and even the way the characters spoke was in par with what one would imagine from the early 1900, when the plot is set. At first I was quite taken with the intensity of some passages, the whole atmosphere the family lived in at the farm. I really thought this would be a family saga of sorts where the characters would be lager than life and would survive any hardships or adversities.

In fact, this wasn't exactly so... there is drama, there are problems, there are issues all characters must face but if there was one thing missing for me, was precisely the lack of empathy towards all of them and to be truly honest, at some point, I just wanted the story to be over. The book is divided into five parts and I'd say my saturation point was at the end of the second part, for it seemed the characters wouldn't really evolve or change or become stronger or even resilient..their initial features would remain the same, even in the face of so much drama, and it was hard for me to simply like them.

The author was very clever in her writing, though. I'd say my favorite part was how she would include social commentary, whether through narrative or through the characters' personalities.The problem is that the characters weren't appealing so it was frustrating to see that despite what was being said about them, they never changed and not even the hero really went from a quiet, unassuming and weak character into someone we could cheer. Could it be they are a product of those times? Probably yes, but then why is this fiction, I'd hope there was some kind of goal in presenting them this way but I closed the book and felt nothing had changed.

Charlie is the main character and a lot is centered on him or in the fact he has a certain role in every place he has to be in. He is the favorite heir, he will be the man of the house, he is a potential husband, a potential officer, a potential farmer and all kinds of roles society and people put on him. I thought the plan would be to see him cope and deal as he was faced with so much but Charlie never really improves or changes... not even at the end when we are supposed to believe he has learned something from his past years... I wasn't convinced of that.

In general, all characters portray some kind of behavior, posture, trait... It was interesting to slowly peel off some layers but to be fair, from the moment things started to not feel as great to me, even this also became ridiculous. Suddenly, they all looked the utmost worst they could be, and not people one would want to care about or sympathize with. I really struggled to find any empathy with all of them, even if recognizing some things happening to them weren't fair or morally correct. What a pity the story stopped being appealing to me, but that's the way it is. I don't feel curious enough to read other books by the author...only perhaps if I find any at the library or something...
Grade: 5/10

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